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In the early 1930s my grandmother Carmen purchased several parcels of land on San Antonio’s West Side. She initially lived in a tent on the property and her only neighbor lived nearby in a shack, according to the stories. She started buying used wood from the Air Force to build her little four-room house. After she built her house, my grandmother also built a small store where she sold many items including kerosene. Back then, my grandmother worked as a sheller at one of the pecan factories, and my mother would help out as a young child at the factory after school to make more money.

I didn’t know any of this when I was growing up in the neighborhood. By that time, my grandmother no longer had her store, but there were other mom-and-pop shops that were set up like my grandmother’s had been, in the front of the residential property. I remember walking to some of these little stores to buy candy and sodas with my friends. Those are the memories I like to hold on to. 

Later as an adult is when I really became curious about the history of the land and my grandmother’s story. So I began doing some research. When I first saw the original deed to the land, I was taken aback by what was in the contract. It clearly stated that people of color could not live there. Of course, we know about redlining and San Antonio’s history of segregation that exists even to this day, but seeing it on paper was especially startling.

I also learned that my grandmother was born in another state and adopted by a Hispanic couple in San Antonio. There’s a lot of mystery around my grandmother’s life and so much more for me to learn about her roots, but what I’ve learned so far has really made me appreciate what she was able to accomplish, even though it was a hard life back in those days.

I now live with my husband Tony and our three dogs on the property where my grandmother lived, which sits on three plots of land. Before COVID-19 large family gatherings were a big deal in the neighborhood. You could hear the mariachis playing at my vecinos’ house parties. The love of music has been a big part of our lives being that my husband is a retired musician.

I like that the houses here are on big lots so they’re not so close together. This allows us all to have our privacy, but it doesn’t mean we’re cut off from each other. I also like that all the houses look different and have their own personalities. I’m especially fond of the hedges in a neighbor’s yard that he has sculpted into different shapes.

My husband and I have lived here for 40 years and have seen people and businesses come and go. The Las Palmas Mall on Castroville Road, which was built in 1955, used to be home to a Joske’s department store. I remember going there to look at all the window displays. Now there’s an H-E-B where Joske’s used to be. 

  • Velma Peña's grandmother, Carmen, poses in front of the home she built in an area coincidentally called "Villa Del Carmen."
  • Velma Peña bumps into her son's mother-in-law, Betty Beltoro, while visiting Mario's Bakery.
  • The HEB located Castroville Road is located inside a former Joske's department store.
  • An ostritch-shaped hedge peers around the corner next to a bus stop. Peña's neighbor, Juan Melendez, makes these creative hedges along the edge of his home, including a dragon, a poodle, and two figurines dancing.
  • Velma Peña and her husband Tony enjoy the flowers on their front porch with their two dogs Texan and Archie.

A lot of folks here have deep roots in the community much like my family. Because I’m so invested in preserving this neighborhood’s history and making this a better place to live for all of us, I do a lot of advocacy work in my community, such as starting the Westwood Square Neighborhood Association that was established four years ago. When the SA Tomorrow plan was introduced, we saw that we needed an organized effort in our community so that we could be part of the conversation. The plan aims to “ guide the city toward smart, sustainable growth,” and in order for us not to be left behind, we have to come together to make sure our voices are heard.

The struggle right now in our neighborhood is working toward progress while making sure we don’t displace the people who live here. Because of our proximity to Port San Antonio, we see an opportunity to beautify the Castroville Road and General McMullen Drive corridors. You’ll see a lot of tire shops, mechanics shops and used car lots, with the occasional restaurants such as Tacos El Rey which has been around for a long time and is a neighborhood staple. I also love stopping by Mario’s Bakery for some pan dulce and ice cream from Dairy Queen. If we start attracting more businesses, it would give residents more options and bring more people to the neighborhood. But it could also mean residents can no longer afford to live here or keep their home in the family. It’s a delicate balance.

What we’ve seen in neighborhoods near downtown, where homes are getting purchased and flipped, is happening here, too. I get calls daily about selling my home. I know that what I’m being offered is far too low and won’t be enough to purchase another home elsewhere, especially in this market. So I make sure my neighbors also know this. It’s definitely not in their best interest.

Despite the struggles we’ve faced on the West Side, we’re still here fighting for a better future. And it’s these struggles that have made me who I am today, that has instilled in me this passion I have for my community. I think about my grandmother and my parents and how hard they worked to make sure we had a home here, and I want to make sure that my grandmother’s legacy lives on. To me, that means not only holding onto this home and this land, but also making sure our neighbors can hold on to theirs.

Velma Peña

Velma Peña is a community advocate and president of the Westwood Square Neighborhood Association.